Still driving customers up the wall after 100 years: Foyles, the bookshop that time forgot

It's in the Guinness Book of Records as the bookshop with the most titles in stock and the longest lines of shelving (30 miles). It boasts the most starrily famous clientele, alive or dead, of any bookshop in history (Eva Peron, the Argentinian first lady, finding herself temporarily short of cash one day, paid for her books with a crocodile-skin vanity case). The guest speakers at its Literary Lunches read like a guide to 20th century literature. It is also, by general consent, one of the most infuriatingly, perversely eccentric retail operations in the history of commerce. Foyles, the most famous bookshop in the world, is 100 years old this year.

It was actually on 14 July, 1903 that two brothers, William, 17, and Gilbert Foyle, 18, sold their first wholesale book. But months earlier, they had started in business by flogging some unwanted textbooks from their parents' kitchen table. They advertised in educational journals, and were startled by the response. Their first year of trading made a princely £10.

In 1906 they bought the shop at 113-119 Charing Cross Road and were away. William Foyle became a bookselling legend, "the Barnum of Books". He employed his 17-year-old daughter Christina in 1928. She later ran his empire for 40 years – and nearly ran it into the ground.

For decades, Foyles has been a shopper's nightmare, with miles and miles of haphazardly arranged titles, non-English-speaking student staff, and a payment system apparently designed by a Victorian lunatic. "It was a byword for dreadful bookselling," said Nicholas Clee, editor of The Bookseller. "They never answered the phone, the assistants never knew anything, and were hired and fired in six months. You could never find any book you wanted."

Would-be buyers had to queue twice. "There weren't any tills or cash registers," remembers The Independent's Christina Patterson, who worked there (and was fired after five weeks) in the mid-80s, "You sat in a little wooden box, and people would have to bring you dockets hand-written by the assistants. I dreaded being asked for help. I couldn't confidently have said which floor I was on."

The trouble was Christina Foyle, who hated any signs of modernity. She refused to allow computers or electronic tills, and spent no money on refurbishments. Her attitude to staff was autocratic: once she fired 40 women for "talking too loudly".

Since she died in 1999, leaving £60m (most of which went to charity, and none to her family), the shop has been run by two of Christina's nephews, Christopher (whom she made a director on her deathbed) and Bill Samuels (whom she cordially loathed). Between them they pulled the shop into at least the 20th century.

Some things don't change, however. You can still spend hours browsing the miles of shelves and marvelling at how everything is in the wrong place. Under "Fiction" you can find Boswell's Life of Dr Johnson, Baudelaire's Prose Poems and the plays of Beaumarchais, and that's just the Bs. Other famous works of conspicuous non-fiction include Rousseau's Confessions, Samuel Smiles' Self-Help and the Greek historian Polybius's Rise of the Roman Empire. With a perversity that borders on the criminal, Proust's 3,000-page A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is filed under "Short Stories". But there's a certain delight in finding out-of-print books, some dating back to the mid-70s, that have been in Foyles' stock for 30 years.

"There's a lot of goodwill in the trade towards Foyle and Samuels, as there would be towards any independent operators, in a world of chain stores" says Nicholas Clee. "They make no attempt to hide their opinion of the shop's past. They want to get things right from now on. After years of incompetence, Foyles still has a very good name."

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee